Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Hasmonean Menorah

It is common knowledge that when the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) reconquered and entered the Temple, they could not easily locate oil. What is not as well known is that they could not find a menorah at all and had to build a new one. I believe that the details of this menorah imply a very specific shape for at least that menorah, regardless of a dispute among rishonim regarding how the menorah looked.

Click here to read moreThere is a debate in the Gemara (Menachos 28b) regarding an earlier disagreement between Rebbe (Yehudah Ha-Nasi) and R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah. According to one view, Rebbe holds that the menorah in the Temple must be made of gold or silver but other metals are invalid, and R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah holds that the menorah may be made of any metal but not wood, metal or glass. The other position holds that Rebbe is of the view that the menorah can be made of any metal and R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah is of the view that the menorah can be made of any material except for clay. Thus, according to the first view, R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah holds that the menorah cannot be made of wood and according to the second view he holds that it can.

A proof is brought for the second view. One is not allowed to make life-size imitations of the Temple structures and utensils, such as a replica of the altar or of the menorah. However, one is allowed to make replicas that are different from the real version in a significant way. For example, one may make a menorah with 6 or 8 branches but not one with 7 branches like the menorah in the Temple. A menorah with 7 branches is not allowed to be made of any metal, and not just gold. R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah adds that one may not even make a menorah with 7 branches out of wood, like the Hasmoneans did.

This implies that, according to R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah, the menorah in the Temple may be made out of wood, since that is precisely what the Hasmoneans did. It seems that when they entered the Temple, there was no menorah there so they had to make a new one.

However, the Gemara responds that R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah did not mean that the menorah was literally made out of wood, rather the Hasmoneans took iron spits, covered them in tin, and used them as a menorah. When they were able to afford a fancier menorah, they made one out of silver. Eventually, they were able to replace that silver menorah with one made of gold. Tosefos Rid explain that the tin looked like wood, which is why R. Yossi ben R. Yehudah called the menorah wooden, but it was really made of iron and plated with tin.

I find it interesting that the Gemara states not just that the menorah was made with tin-plated iron, but that the iron was spits (shefudin). To me, this seems to imply that the branches of the menorah were straight rather than rounded. There is a general debate about the shape of the ideal menorah in the Temple (see this post). However, it seems to me that all would agree that the Hasmonean make-shift menorah, which is really what Chanukah is all about, had straight branches.

Whether there is an obligation for our menorahs to look like the Hasmonean menorah is a separate issue. For example, R. Hershel Schachter likes to tell the story of how one of his students once misunderstood a lecture he had given and then, when he saw R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik light Chanukah candles directly on aluminum foil without any menorah, told him that R. Schachter holds one cannot fulfill his obligation that way. R. Soloveitchik begged to differ, and contended that one does not need any menorah whatsoever so long as one has proper candles (his reported response was, "Tell Schachter that he's crazy"). However, what the Hasmonean menorah looked like, I believe, can be inferred from this passage.

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